The heritage syndrome, if I may call it that, almost seems to be a predictable but certainly a non-conspiratorial response–an impulse to remember what is attractive or flattering and to ignore all the rest. Heritage is composed of those aspects of history that we cherish and affirm. As an alternative to history, heritage accentuates the positive but sifts away what is problematic. One consequence is that the very pervasiveness of heritage as a phenomenon produces a beguiling sense of serenity about the well-being of history–that is, a false consciousness that historical knowledge and understanding are alive and well in the United States.
Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, p. 626
To understand something historically is to be aware of its complexity, to have sufficient detachment to see it from multiple perspectives, to accept the ambiguities, including moral ambiguities, of protagonists’ motives and behavior.
Peter Novick, That Noble Dream
Martin R. Delaney
I am beginning to think about what I am going to say next Saturday at North Carolina State University for their symposium on the Civil War and public history. My talk will focus not only on the challenges surrounding the discussion of slavery and race at our Civil War battlefields, but specifically the difficulty of attracting African Americans to these sites. I will look specifically about the steps taken by the National Park Service at the Petersburg National Battlefield.
I’ve learned a umber of things in the course of my research on the Crater and public history/historical memory. For any number of reasons we’ve underestimated the level of interest in the Civil War within the African American community. In Petersburg public interest could be found in the postwar years in local churches, in black militia units, and in local schools. A heightened awareness of the role of African Americans in the Civil War can be found in the 1950s and 60s in such popular magazines such as Ebony and Jet. Over the course of the past year we’ve seen ample evidence of African Americans embracing the Civil War. The level of interest is directly related to the wide range of events that can be found in museums, historical societies, educational institutions, and other private organizations. Despite what the mainstream media would have us believe, we are witnessing a profound transformation in our collective memory of the war compared with just a few short decades ago.
The National Park Service has led the way in broadening the general public’s understanding of the war and the meaning of our most important historic sites. Consider John Hennessy’s recent tour of Fredericksburg, titled, “Forgotten: Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg”, which attracted roughly 70 members from the area’s historic black churches. John’s optimism is tempered somewhat by the comments he heard from a few people:
“Are you going to get in trouble for doing this? You know…your bosses. I didn’t think you guys were allowed to do things like this.” During the day, I received a number of comments along the same line, suggesting surprise that we, the NPS, would do a tour dealing with slavery.
I have little doubt that the public perception of the NPS among African Americans will continue to improve with continued programming that reaches beyond traditional narrative boundaries. The NPS in Petersburg has also taken steps to reach out to the local black community with, among other things, a series of walking tours of downtown Petersburg. Again, all of these things bode well for the future.
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Back in January I announced that I was adding affiliate links for Amazon.com books into my posts. As a result, I get a small percentage of each sale in the form of a gift certificate. A few weeks ago I added a widget in the sidebar that extends this affiliate program to include titles from my personal library. Well, this little experiment has gone better than I anticipated. Since the beginning of January Civil War Memory has earned $55 dollars in commissions based on the sale of 49 ordered items. I am feeling very good about this program. Most importantly, I have complete control over the products that I advertise and it is clear that readers of this blog are clicking through, which implies a certain amount of trust on your part.
I’ve proceeded carefully down this road with the full understanding that it is my wide readership that makes Civil War Memory such a popular and dynamic site. The last thing that I want to do is alienate readers with misleading advertisements or even worse, inferior products. I have resisted utilizing Google Ad Sense and other automated programs precisely because they do not afford me a sufficient level of control over the placement of specific products. At the same time I simply can’t ignore the fact that this site could help to supplement my income over the next year. If anything, it could help offset the costs involved in maintaining this site and given my impending move to Boston every little bit helps.
What I can guarantee all of you is that the ads will compliment the content of this site and will allow me to continue to direct this blog’s audience to companies that support my broader mission of history education. Let me know what you think and please feel free to voice any concerns.
I trust that after this post no one will accuse me of dismissing any and all evidence for the existence of black Confederate soldiers. Better yet, I give you at least one black Confederate general. The interesting question is whether the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others will accept him as one of their own. From The Boston Globe:
Randall Lee Gibson, an urbane, Yale-educated Confederate general, mocked black people as “the most degraded of all races of men.’’ Later, as a US senator from Louisiana, he helped broker the end of Reconstruction, freeing the South to harass and lynch blacks virtually at will…. In the 20th century, his orphaned son, Preston, was raised by an aunt and her husband, who had been a justice on the US Supreme Court that legitimated racial segregation in the infamous case of Plessy v. Ferguson…. What Senator Gibson did not know was that his great-grandfather Gideon Gibson was a free man of color, and a substantial landowner and slaveholder, who led the “Regulators’’ to a successful back-country revolt in Colonial South Carolina. To his peers, the author contends, Gideon Gibson was neither black nor white but merely rich and respected. His marriage to a white woman further blanched his progeny, and their relocation to Mississippi and Louisiana allowed the family’s African-American past to fade away altogether.
The following passage comes from a review of a new book that explores the complex web of racial identity through the experiences of three families that straddled the the racial divide. Gibson’s life is also the focus of a recent biography by Mary Gorton McBride, titled, Randall Lee Gibson of Louisiana: Confederate General and New South Reformer (Louisiana State University Press, 2007). In 1876 Gibson was attacked by former Republican governor James Madison Wells, who accused him of being “colored” in the pages of the New York Times. Gibson followed up by consulting with two historians in Mississippi concerning his family history. Apparently neither Gibson nor his siblings had any knowledge of their black ancestors, but what is more interesting is that the accusations apparently had no impact on how he viewed himself or on society’s acceptance of Gibson as a “white” leader.
So, was/is General Randall Lee Gibson a black Confederate?